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Gen. David Petraeus says Afghanistan war strategy 'fundamentally sound'

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 16, 2010; A01

KABUL -- In his first six weeks as the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David H. Petraeus has seen insurgent attacks on coalition forces spike to record levels, violence metastasize to previously stable areas, and the country's president undercut anti-corruption units backed by Washington.

But after burrowing into operations here and traveling to the far reaches of this country, Petraeus has concluded that the U.S. strategy to win the nearly nine-year-old war is "fundamentally sound."

In a wide-ranging hour-long interview with The Washington Post, he said he sees incipient signs of progress in parts of the volatile south, in new initiatives to create community defense forces and in nascent steps to reintegrate low-level insurgents who want to stop fighting.

With public support for the war slipping and a White House review of the conflict due in December, Petraeus said he is pushing the forces under his command to proceed with alacrity. He remains supportive of President Obama's decision to begin withdrawing troops next July, but he said it is far too soon to determine the size of the drawdown.

"We are doing everything we can to achieve progress as rapidly as we can without rushing to failure," Petraeus said in his wood-paneled office at NATO headquarters in Kabul. "We're keenly aware that this has been ongoing for approaching nine years. We fully appreciate the impatience in some quarters."

But he warned against expecting quick results in a campaign that involves building Afghan government and security institutions from scratch, and persuading people to cast their lot with coalition forces after years of broken promises -- all in the face of Taliban intimidation and attacks.

"It's a gradual effort. It's a deliberate effort," he said. "There's no hill to take and flag to plant and proclamation of victory. Rather, it's just hard work."

Petraeus said he would provide his "best military advice" to Obama, who will make the decision on troop levels next year. But the general's presence in Kabul, as opposed to the U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, could make him a far more forceful voice for attenuating the drawdown if he chooses to make that case.

He said it is too early to ascertain when Afghan security forces can assume responsibility for various parts of the country. Officials from some NATO nations, where public support for the war is lower than it is in the United States, want to announce at a November meeting of alliance foreign ministers a list of provinces to be handed over. Some Obama administration officials also are pushing for a transition plan before the White House review. But some of the once-quiet provinces in the north and west, deemed likely targets a few months ago, are now wracked by spiking insurgent violence.

"We're still in the process of determining what is realistic," Petraeus said. That, he said, depends on the progress of security operations over the next several months. "It's a process, not an event. It's one that's to be conditions-based."

'Resilient' enemy

Petraeus's return to the battlefield from his perch as Central Command chief was the result of desperate circumstances -- Obama's decision to fire Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal for flippant comments he and his staff members made to a magazine reporter -- yet it has provided the United States and NATO with what almost certainly is the last and best chance to reverse a foundering war. Petraeus literally wrote the military's book on counterinsurgency strategy, and he engineered a dramatic turnaround in Iraq that many assumed impossible. But Afghanistan is in many ways a more daunting environment, and there is no guarantee that the same counterinsurgency tactics applied in Baghdad will work in Kandahar.

Asked whether he was certain that the counterinsurgency strategy, which emphasizes protecting the civilian population, can be effective in a country where many people regard the insurgents more as miscreant relatives than an existential threat, Petraeus refrained from an unequivocal endorsement.

"The enemy has shown himself to be resilient," he said. "The enemy does fight back. He is trying, in his assessment, to outlast us."

Although he is not tackling Afghanistan as he did Iraq, where he began overhauling the war plan upon arrival, he is seeking to duplicate some of the methods that served him well in Baghdad, foremost among them incessant engagement with the country's political leader. He meets with Afghan President Hamid Karzai about once a day -- far more often than the U.S. ambassador does -- in an effort to transform him and his government from weak links to essential partners in the counterinsurgency mission.

The principal changes Petraeus enacted over the past six weeks have largely been refinements or expansions to steps taken by McChrystal and his predecessors. McChrystal began the practice of frequent meetings with Karzai, and a tactical directive by Petraeus that restricts the use of airstrikes in an effort to minimize civilian casualties builds upon a document written by McChrystal.

Petraeus called all the adjustments he has made since taking over "nothing very dramatic." He did not conduct a top-to-bottom examination of the strategy, as he did when he went to Baghdad or as McChrystal did when he arrived in Kabul last year, largely because he played a key role in developing the current approach in Afghanistan.

But his decision not to call for a strategic reassessment means he effectively has no grace period. With more than 80 percent of the surge forces on the ground and the rest arriving later this month, the mission is at a stage where "what you have to do is to start turning inputs into output."

"I didn't sign up for a honeymoon," he said.

General sees momentum

Petraeus contends that the counterinsurgency strategy is showing momentum in Helmand province, where about 20,000 U.S. Marines and 10,000 British troops have sought to create inkblots of security in six key districts. Some areas, such as Marja, a former Taliban stronghold, have proved to be tougher to pacify -- insurgents are continuing an aggressive harassment campaign -- but other places, such as the districts of Nawa and Garmsir, are becoming more stable and may feature prominently in his year-end presentation to the White House.

He also said he is encouraged by developments in Arghandab district on Kandahar's northern fringe, where two U.S. Army battalions have been engaged in an arduous mission to clear insurgents from pomegranate orchards and vineyards seeded with makeshift but lethal anti-personnel mines.

"We got intelligence we gathered from the Taliban that said, 'Don't worry, fellows. The time has come now. Stop fighting, lay down your weapons and fade away, and just wait until they leave,' " he said. "Of course, in this case our forces are not leaving."

Other U.S. units will begin clearing operations in districts to the west of the city this fall. But already, Petraeus said, missions by U.S., NATO and Afghan special-forces teams to target Taliban leaders in the Kandahar area have tripled over the past four months.

Nationwide, those forces have killed or captured 365 insurgent leaders and about 2,400 rank-and-file members over the past three months, he said, providing the most detailed accounting of the increase in counter-terrorist operations this year.

The operations have led "some leaders of some elements" of the insurgency to begin reconciliation discussions with the Afghan government, Petraeus said. Some military officials have suggested that insurgent leaders are simply testing the waters because they perceive the Afghan government to be desperate, but Petraeus characterized the interactions as "meaningful," although he cautioned against raising "undue expectations."

Perhaps his most significant accomplishment since arriving in Kabul has been to get Karzai to endorse the creation of armed neighborhood-watch groups. The president initially expressed concern that the program could result in the creation of militias similar to those that ravaged the country in the 1990s and led to the Taliban's rise.

Petraeus insisted that those groups could play an important role in preventing insurgents from taking over areas where there are few security forces. The program, he said, "has real potential to create problems for the Taliban."

Afghan officials close to Karzai have expressed concern about Petraeus's willingness to heed the president's concerns.

"We had an excellent relationship with General McChrystal," one of them said. "We hope it will be the same with General Petraeus."

Petraeus called his relationship with Karzai "healthy," acknowledging "moments in which we have come at different issues from a different perspective." But he has refrained from criticizing Karzai in public, even after the president lashed out at the arrest of one his aides for allegedly soliciting a bribe to impede an investigation into a massive money-laundering scheme.

"We need to see what the outcome is," Petraeus said.

A new tone

At the headquarters here, the at-times freewheeling style of McChrystal's staff of Special Forces officers has given way to a more disciplined culture under Petraeus. At the daily morning meeting of senior commanders, generals used to tap e-mails on their secure laptops as they received briefings. These days, the computers are closed. Everyone is focused on the discussion at hand.

The meeting often involves more talk of the non-combat aspects of counterinsurgency. At a recent session, the briefings focused on the country's upcoming parliamentary elections, the floods in Pakistan and Iran's commercial interests in Afghanistan.

Petraeus maintains a rigorous schedule. Up at 5:30 a.m. to read his intelligence briefing book. Forty-five minutes of exercise. And then travel or meetings until late in the evening. But some of his aides say the routine is less grueling than his Centcom job, when he spent more than 300 days a year away from his base in Tampa. Here, they note, they at least get to sleep in the same bed most nights.

Although he has brought his personal staff from Central Command and a few other senior officers who helped him in Iraq -- including Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who leads an anti-corruption team, and Col. James Seaton, who runs his strategic planning group -- he is retaining McChrystal's three U.S. deputy commanders: Maj. Gen. Michael T. Flynn for intelligence, Maj. Gen. William C. Mayville for operations and Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith for communications.

One policy he has opted not to continue, however, is his predecessor's asceticism. He suggested that the fast-food restaurants McChrystal ordered closed on bases probably will reopen soon.

"With respect to Burger Kings, all options are on the table," he said.

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